Photographed by John Gaucher
When Allison Lane found out she had cancer at age 34, she reacted with shock and horror. “Oh no! Are you kidding me? This doesn’t fit with my plans. I have to find a husband!” recounts the vivacious blond, laughing at the memory. A month before discovering a lump in her right breast, Allison had decided she had to get serious about dating if she wanted to get married. Locating Mr. Right while going through treatment was going to be difficult: chemotherapy could leave her bald and sick, and a port in her chest used to deliver the drugs might complicate makeout sessions.
But instead of giving up her search Allison, an actress, playwright and entertainer with a strong comedic bent, morphed into the Chem-Ho, a single girl intent on landing a lover, who just happened to have breast cancer. Allison, the Chem-Ho, filmed her journey through cancer treatment and posted it on Youtube and at www.chem-ho.com.
The response to the video series has been nothing short of amazing. Almost immediately, Allison began hearing from people around the world who were thrilled to see someone laughing in the face of the typically terrifying C-word.
“People told me ‘you made me realize it’s not so bad,’” says Allison. “I also gave them a visual. No one knew what chemotherapy looked like. I didn’t know what it looked like. Here I was, going into the chemo ward, joking and laughing and they saw that it wasn’t so scary.”
Laughter has always been Allison’s way of coping with difficult situations. Growing up in Winnipeg, she was drawn to comedians and quickly discovered that the best comics turned life’s tragedies into funny material. “Every time I go through stress and tragedy, I have always turned to humour and wrote about the situation,” Allison says over a coffee in Calgary, where she’s lived for 13 years. In a one-woman show entitled The Circus is Coming to Town, Allison transformed the all-too-familiar pain of family dysfunction into guffaws, while another, They’re Just Not That Into Me, was her way of processing a bad breakup and the healing that must occur afterward.
Although she found that laughing made living with cancer easier on her, Allison couldn’t be sure that it affected those who love her in the same way. “When you’re going through this, you’re in the present, just trying to get through each moment or day,” she says. “Other people think about your future and your past and it’s way harder on them.”
Her friends and family say Allison’s approach did help them deal with the pain of having a loved one undergo cancer treatments. “She could be on her worst day and the worst time of her chemo treatments, where things were just terrible, and she would confide something that most people would likely keep to themselves, because of embarrassment, and she’d have us in stitches,” says Janet St. Germain, Allison’s friend and a fellow actor.
Allison’s father, Graham Lane, agrees. “She managed to find humour in the most difficult circumstances,” he says over the phone from his home in Winnipeg. He tells of a six-day hospitalization during which Allison fought a dangerous infection. “She would make the oncologist and the nurses and [her mother and I] laugh.”
Laughter, however, wasn’t enough to keep Graham Lane and Allison’s mother, Marie, from feeling afraid. Initially terrified when they learned of Allison’s diagnosis, they found their fear lessening as they learned about Allison’s treatment and prognosis.
“I was extremely impressed with the Alberta health- care system. The surgeon, oncologist and nurses were all fantastic in the way they dealt with her so quickly,” says Graham. “From the orientation that I attended with Allison, right through the entire process, they were there. It was quite the experience to see how effective health care can be.”
It was never Allison’s intention to gloss over the many frightening, serious and heartbreaking moments that arise when living with cancer. Her videos contain a lot of vulnerability. Allison cries, she loses her hair, she grapples with loneliness and fear, all of it giving viewers a true picture of the ups and downs experienced by a woman going about her life while navigating a major bump in the road.
Using laughter to cope with her cancer was, Allison says, her way of keeping her life as normal as possible. That’s also why she continued operating her entertainment company, Out of Our Heads Productions and why her friend Janet St. Germain, who owns Terry Shane Murder Mysteries, continued to hire Allison as an actress.
ALLISON: WARRIOR PRINCESS: Comedian and actor Allison Lane wasn’t about to let a breast cancer diagnosis ruin her career. Naturally, she bought a few great wigs, rented some chainmail and a sword and channeled Xena Warrior Princess to confront cancer head-on.
“It was good for her to keep busy and keep living,” says St. Germain. “Some people just quit everything and stop life. Allison didn’t want to do that.” The acting may have had another benefit. “In our line of work, you get to be someone else for awhile. She was more than eager to hang up the shoes she was in and put on the stilettos, or whatever her character wore that night.”
Allison’s treatment is over and she is cancer-free. Her search for Mr. Right continues but these days, her ideal man looks a little different. He’s no longer just a pretty face who tells a good joke and makes a fantastic income. Now, Allison is looking for someone who is kind, supportive and a good listener. Someone, she says, like her dad.
The journey through cancer treatment has changed every aspect of Allison’s life. She’s the first to admit she never thought she’d be grateful for cancer, but that she is, in fact, supremely grateful and wouldn’t change a thing. She hears daily from people impacted by the Chemo-Ho series and is currently working on a comedic memoir about dating before, during and after cancer.
Her health is now a top priority, leading to an additional line of work – as a personal trainer. Grateful for her body, Allison has given up the negative self-talk that seems to plague all women and is in the best shape of her life.
“When her last treatment was over, a week later, along with 1,800 other people, she was bicycling through the Rockies,” says her father, with obvious admiration. “It’s phenomenal.”
Joining the Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer was Allison’s way of celebrating the end of treatment and the amazing capabilities of her body. “I wanted to do something for me, to prove to myself and my body that I was healthy,” she says. “The ride was the most amazing weekend of my life. I realized that cancer affects everyone and we are all in it together.”
She’s also made her first film. Called Everybody Loves Boobs, it’s a funny take on a not-so-funny subject: how medicine has turned breast cancer into a product instead of a disease. In the film, Allison plays herself going through treatment for breast cancer, while participating in a bachelorette-type reality show. Her breasts become big business as network executives and sponsors use them to achieve fame and fortune.
The film is Allison’s way of talking about the politics of cancer, particularly about how some cancers seem to be more worthy of attention, and funding, than others. She sees cancer as cancer regardless of where it occurs in the body and points out that everyone on the chemo ward, or watching Chem-Ho, is going through the same experience.
The film also explores a common phenomenon for women with breast cancer. “When my treatment finished and the cancer was gone, I was asked if I wanted to be referred to a counsellor,” says Allison. Confused, Allison asked why and was told that many women don’t know how to identify themselves when they no longer have breast cancer.
Therein lies the beauty of Allison’s art. Her videos, film and memoir aren’t attempts to give advice – Allison laughingly claims that she’s just a big goofball, not a doctor – but reminders that when you’re living with cancer, you’re still you. You can laugh, wear silly wigs during chemotherapy, and hit on hot doctors who aren’t wearing wedding bands. As Allison puts it: “Don’t get sucked in. Just keep living your life. Because you’ll get through it.”